TALLAHASSEE – The first payment of $300 million from a settlement reached with BP Oil to cover economic damages to northwest Florida caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill is due, but distribution of the funds will have to wait until the next legislative session.
BP agreed to the settlement offer from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in July. As part of the deal, the company will pay the state $2 billion over 15 years.
Under the Oil Spill Economic Recovery Act, three quarters of the settlement is earmarked for the northwest counties of the state that were hardest hit by the spill.
Triumph Gulf Coast Inc., the non-profit created under the recovery act to oversee the funds, is ready to receive and distribute funding; but first, the Florida House and the Senate must appropriate the funding to the agency.
The legislature is caught in a catch-22. It cannot distribute the money without legislation, but members cannot vote on legislation to distribute the funding until they actually have it in hand.
“The money does not exist, because it hasn’t been paid by BP yet," state Sen. Don Gaetz recently told the Florida Record.
This is because a judge did not sign off on the settlement until after the legislative session ended. Now, when the money is received, it will have to sit in a state-held account until the next session.
Gaetz attempted to introduce legislation in the state House to distribute the funding, but the session ended before the money was received.
The counties that are set to benefit most economically – Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla – may benefit from the delay in releasing the money. To receive the funding from Triumph, the county must have matching funds. Most of the area is still recovering economically. By not having access to the funding, each county has more time to look for funding.
Gaetz continues to advocate for the northwest counties in the hopes “that legislators will honor the existing law.” He is concerned that the legislature will attempt to loot the money for other projects, which is happening in Alabama. One controversial project is a beach house that was destroyed six years before the oil spill, but the state has set aside $58 million of its settlement to restore the state park where it sits.
“Northwest Florida will have to sleep with both eyes open for the next 15 years, “Gaetz said.
Even though the money is ear-marked for the counties on the Gulf which were affected by the BP oil spill, it’s possible that future legislators will attempt to re-appropriate the money.
Florida is not the only state facing the problems of restoring the Gulf Coast area and making it profitable. Mississippi and Louisiana also have been granted funding and are struggling with the best way to appropriate the money received from their respective settlements.